Lea Howe Begins the Conversation with Cookies

Lea Howe, an MTCC AmeriCorps VISTA serving with the FoodCorps team with Boulder’s 21st Century Learning, shares blog four in our weekly series of updates directly from Montana FoodCorps members.

I checked my watch: 1:00 a.m. The kitchen of Boulder Elementary School still smelled of cinnamon and ginger as I sprayed the last bit of cookie dough from an industrial metal tray. During tomorrow’s farmers market, these Heart Healthy Cookies, I hoped, would lure people into conversations about whole foods, the importance of supporting local agriculture and, of course, provide a chance to share simple, healthy, delicious recipes.

As a Montana FoodCorps member serving with Boulder’s 21st Century Learning Program, it’s the conversations, not the cookies, that I’m most interested in. Since I’m a newcomer to this tightly-knit community, I’ve been anxious about making as positive and unobtrusive a first impression as possible. But how does one begin a conversation about broken food systems that have resulted in rampant diet-related disease, job loss, ravaged ecosystems, and a world where people no longer know their farmers nor question the source of their food? It’s not uplifting material, to say the least, and I certainly had no desire to be only the harbinger of bad news.
Beginning a conversation can be like pulling hen’s teeth.
For that reason, over the past few months I’ve been honing the art of ‘beginning a conversation.’ I’ve spent much of my time getting a lay of the land, learning what makes this little town of Boulder “tick.” I observe my surroundings. I participate in as many events and local activities as possible. I ask questions. (A lot of questions.) And I listen. I’ve even picked up the “Two-Step.”
But it was during a late night baking spree at my house, when sweet smells wafting from the oven had beckoned the rest of my housemates into lively conversations, that it hit me. COMFORT FOOD. Food that makes people feel at ease – the x-factor that makes food such a powerful tool for social change.

Enter the Heart Healthy Cookies project. Many 21st Century Summer Program elementary school students were already growing and harvesting ingredients in the school gardens. So why don’t we walk over to the school kitchen to make—what else—cookies?

Now, the Heart Healthy Cookie menu has evolved to include items such as Banana-Sweetened Montana-Oat Chocolate Chip Cookies, Community Garden Grown Carrot and Zucchini Date Muffins, Backyard Applesauce-Sweetened Ginger Molasses Cookies, and Montana Oat and Nut Bars with dried Flathead Cherries.
The kids then help sell the cookies at the farmers market. It’s amazing to hear them talk with pride about the nutritious benefits of whole grains, or the way that seasonal cherries can make your cheeks pucker. Since we never use more than a dozen ingredients in any baked good, and all the ingredients are easy to pronounce, even an eight year old can be a confident messenger.
At the same time, this simple project translates to children that are taking stewardship roles in the growing and harvesting processes, learning the dying craft of culinary arts, and re-acquiring taste buds for healthier, wholesome foods. Students, teachers, parents, locals are all invested, sparking discussions about other meaningful changes we might make in our food system—changes that taste good, too.

Sure, sometimes I find myself staying up late to finish up the baking after the kids have gone home, but, in some ways, I actually enjoy the methodical measuring and mixing, stirring and scraping–a moment of quiet to reflect on the week’s whirlwind of conversations, and to look forward to the ones to come.

Try it yourself!

Zucchini Date Muffins

(Muffins are vegan, soy free, and can be gluten-free if you substitute GF flour)
Yields:12 muffins
Ingredients:
  • 2 cups whole wheat pastry flour (or substitute with all-purpose GF flour, or regular all-purpose flour)

  • 2 tsp. baking powder

  • 1 tsp. baking soda

  • 1/4 tsp. ginger

  • 1 tsp. cinnamon

  • 1/4 tsp. salt

  • 1/2 cup applesauce

  • 1/4 cup coconut or olive oil

  • 1/4 cup almond milk

  • 1/3 cup sucanat or sugar (this will make the muffins moderately sweet; use 1/2 cup for sweeter muffins, but keep in mind that the dates will add sweetness too)

  • 1 1/4 cup shredded zucchini

  • 2/3 cup chopped dates, tossed in a little flour so that they don’t clump together
1) Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
2) Mix all dry ingredients (save sugar) in a large bowl.
3) Whisk together applesauce, oil, milk, and sucanat, and pour them into the dry ingredients.
4) Fold ingredients together till just mixed, and then fold in the zucchini and dates.
5) Pour batter into muffin tins and bake until golden brown — about 12-15 minutes.
*From ChoosingRaw.com, a nutrition blog with lots of delicious, healthy recipes.